Catch a Tiger by the Toe
The conflict in Sri Lanka presents the United States with a rare, low-cost opportunity for leadership in the region.
12:00 AM, Aug 8, 2006 • By AARON MANNES
WHILE THE WORLD focuses its attention on Lebanon, the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka looks poised for yet another flare-up. Even excluding the Sri Lankan army's current offensive, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)'s June 15 bombing of a passenger bus that killed 64 people and the June 26 assassination of a top Sri Lankan general, LTTE terrorism and Sri Lankan military reprisals have claimed hundreds of lives this year. Sri Lanka is a democratic ally, but the United States has limited options for preventing further bloodshed. However, international frustration with LTTE intransigence has created a rare, low-cost opportunity for American leadership in the region. If the United States can effectively target the LTTE's international finance and smuggling networks, a lack of money and weapons will reduce the group's capability to commit terror attacks, increase the possibility of a political solution in Sri Lanka, and improve the regional situation in Southeast Asia.
Long before the terms entered the American lexicon, the LTTE's struggle for an independent, ethnically Hindu Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka featured hundreds of suicide bombings and IEDs at a cost in lives now estimated to exceed 64,000. According to the United Nation's Children's Fund, the LTTE has a history of recruiting child soldiers (including children orphaned by the December 2004 tsunami.) The LTTE has bombed Sri Lanka's World Trade Center and assassinated dozens of political leaders, including two national leaders: former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993.
Sri Lanka's Tamils have legitimate grievances against the Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated Sri Lankan government. The Tamils have suffered from Sinhalese mob violence and the Sri Lankan military has attacked Tamil civilians both directly and through paramilitary groups. But Sri Lanka is a democracy and Tamils have held high positions in the government. Furthermore, the LTTE pursues a strategy designed to stoke ethnic tensions and provoke attacks on the island's ethnic minority, hamstringing the Sri Lankan government's faltering attempts at a political solution.
The LTTE has two major sources of revenue with which to fund its war: maritime smuggling and the international Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. The LTTE, with its base of operations in close proximity to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes, maintains its own fleet of ocean-going ships that engage in commerce both legitimate and otherwise. LTTE arms buying expeditions have ranged from southern Asia to Africa and beyond. Meanwhile, the international Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has provided financial and political support critical to the group's survival. Much of this support, according to a Human Rights Watch report, may be coerced through the intimidation and even murder of diaspora Tamils who criticize the LTTE.
These international fundraising and smuggling networks are vulnerable to concerted international efforts. Canada, home to the world's largest Sri Lankan Tamil expatriate community, banned the LTTE this April after the release of the Human Rights Watch report. The EU, frustrated with LTTE obstruction of the Norwegian-sponsored peace process, banned the LTTE in May. While these bans have not brought the LTTE back to the negotiating table, they could be part of a long-term effort to cripple the LTTE's international networks. But such an effort would be futile without American leadership. Only the United States, which banned the LTTE in 1997, could facilitate international intelligence sharing, and ensure the dismantling of the LTTE's international networks by applying the procedures and policies used to target al-Qaeda's financial network.
Although the LTTE is not an Islamist terrorist group, an LTTE crackdown should not be viewed as distraction from the war against Islamist terror. Attacking the LTTE's smuggling and financial networks will likely reveal a wealth of data on other criminal networks in the region. For example, exposing and dismantling the organizations which supply such lethal weaponry to the LTTE could only reduce the availability of arms to the region's Islamist terrorists as well.
Violence in Sri Lanka also has implications for India. The 50 million Tamils living in southern India will be distressed by the suffering of their brethren in Sri Lanka and could demand action. Inspired by the LTTE, India's Tamils may come to nurture their own separatist ambitions. The LTTE's establishment of a satellite television station that reaches throughout Southeast Asia only heightens Indian concerns. American help containing the situation would build bridges with India in a sector where Pakistan, India's traditional rival, has minimal interests.